I think the Trumpet Major is generally considered to be a fairly minor work by Hardy. Of course it could be said that a minor work by Hardy is still a fairly great piece of literature – well I certainly think so. The Trumpet Major is beautifully written, and the characterisation is fabulous, many of the more minor characters beautifully comic. The English countryside and the natural world are always at their best in Hardy’s Wessex, and here the small rural communities that Hardy grew up in, are affectionately reproduced. In writing The Trumpet Major, Hardy was writing an historical novel – which he had been inspired to do after meeting with aged survivors of the conflict at Chelsea hospital in 1875. Although the story mainly concerns the three possible suitors for the hand of Anne Garland – Hardy also faithfully depicts both the fear and patriotism in small English communities at this time.
“Their excitement was merely of a piece with that of all men at this critical juncture. Everywhere expectation was at fever heat. For the last year or two only five-and-twenty miles of shallow water had divided quiet English homesteads from an enemy’s army of a hundred and fifty thousand men. We had taken the matter lightly enough, eating and drinking as in the days of Noe, and singing satires without end. We punned on Bonaparte and his gunboats, chalked his effigy on stage-coaches, and published the same in prints. Still, between these bursts of hilarity, it was sometimes recollected that England was the only European country which had not succumbed to the mighty little man who was less than human in feeling, and more than human in will; that our spirit for resistance was greater than our strength; and that the Channel was often calm.”
A thin partition wall divides the home of the Widow Garland and her daughter Anne, from that of the Miller Loveday. The two households get along well together, although Mrs Garland feels that she and her daughter are socially superior to the Lovedays. This does not prevent her from marrying the genial Miller Loveday – but she is less keen for her daughter to marry either of his sons. John the elder is the eponymous Trumpet Major – a good honourable man in the tradition of many other Hardy heroes. Robert his brother to whom Anne once lost her heart when still a very young girl is a sailor – and something of a womaniser. The third suitor to Anne is the cowardly oafish Festus Derriman, a conniving Dragoon, and nephew of the local squire. It is Derriman whom Mrs Garland (later Mrs Loveday) champions in her social ambitions for her daughter.
Needless to say there are many obstacles, misunderstandings, tears and fainting aways to be gone through before Anne decides with whom her future will rest. Anne is ever so slightly irritating at times – I found myself tutting and saying “for heaven’s sake you silly girl!” However John Loveday – the Trumpet Major is wonderful – sigh! I also rather adored Uncle Benji – the horrid Festus Derriman’s uncle – he’s a masterful comic creation.
I won’t give away the ending so I will say no more of the story. Overall however I found The Trumpet Major entertaining and hugely readable – it has in fact a much lighter touch than many other Hardy novels and could be said therefore to be a quite quick read. It is certainly a lighter novel than Far from the Madding Crowd or Return of the Native, which the Hardy group read recently but for me it still has much to recommend it.